Klipplaart. 30 July

Klipplaart. 30 July

We had been to some remote places before - the coast of Wales with Hamlet, high in the Bavarian Alps with Twelfth Night and even to the edges of Siberia with Macbeth - but nothing had prepared us for Klipplaart. It was the Grahamstown Festival that had brought us to South Africa, a coming together of all that is important in theatre from across this vast country. The schools festival which follows it invites a small group from every high school in South Africa to join in a week of performances and workshops exploring and celebrating drama and the arts. We had been asked to stay on after the main festival and give a performance of As You Like It to all these young people, some one thousand of them, on the final night of the schools festival with workshops on gender issues in the play on the days before. It was a humbling experience. Many of the children had travelled for as long as sixteen hours over hundreds of miles of barren land to be at the festival. We ran workshops with young people who spoke languages of which we had never heard (there are 11 official languages in South Africa) and yet all of whom had a love, respect and understanding for Shakespeare that would have put there English counterparts to shame. The remarkable things we found in South Africa, as we have found elsewhere in our travels, is how Shakespeare is an icon through which all the world views itself.

After the festival we moved on to the large industrial city of Port Elizabeth where the Western District Council of the Eastern Cape Province had invited us to run more workshops and give further performances. The Council's Recreation and Arts Department covers an area of 66,000 square kilometres with a staff of just two and a half. For a week we supported them: six actors, a stage manager and myself touring the sprawling townships and the furthest flung rural areas. Thus it was that we came to Klipplaart.

Visually we were in the world of the spaghetti western. The driest and most barren of land in the Karoo mountains with the rusting hulk of an old steam engine the only testament to the industry which once gave the little town a purpose. The trains do not stop here any more and the few who still find employment in the town somehow make a living from the land. In its efforts to fight the evils of unemployment, crime and Aids which grip so much of this wonderful country, the Council has developed cultural activities across the region using traditional performance forms of dance and song with improvised drama to help rural communities give expression to their hopes, dreams, frustrations and debates. The faith these arts workers - Melville David, Looks Matoto and Sonya - have in the transforming powers of performance is humbling to those of us from other parts of the world who take such things to much for granted.

The people of Klipplaart had prepared a performance for us and as we arrived, after a three hours drive much of it over dirt roads, they turned out from their homes and made their way towards the large hall where a couple of rock filled crates, a piece of wire and two sheets provided a front cloth to the proceedings. Gumboot dancers, accapella singers and a devised play about the problems of alcohol made for an impressive bill, that we, the only white faces in an audience of perhaps 200 black Africans of all ages, enjoyed as much as the others.

Then it was our turn. The performance we had seen had been in Xhosa. This was the language of the audience, though they also spoke Afrikaans. But they wanted to see this group of European actors (our Rosalind was English, our Celia Norwegian, our Orlando German, our Charles French and our Oliver Italian) act Shakespeare in English. We had no set with us; no costume or make-up; we were without our props. But inspired by the performance which had just been given for us we performed for them. With no rehearsal I called the actors to the stage and as they disappeared behind the curtain I introduced their characters. Our story, I said through Looks Matoto's Xhosa translation, was of two princesses, an evil Duke and a wrestling match between a professional fighter and an unknown stranger.

I pulled the curtain and the wrestling scene (in our production kick boxing) began. Few if any of the words were understood by an audience who had never left this small town, never met Europeans, certainly never seen Shakespeare. Yet every nuance was understood. The revelation for us, the heresy even, was that somehow Shakespeare can transcend language. The power and simplicity of his storytelling coupled with actors determined to convey their narrative and their characters, gave for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes the clearest, most powerful, vibrant performance of Shakespeare I have ever seen. The flirting between Rosalind and Orlando, the friendship between Rosalind and Celia, the aggression between the fighters, the realisation of Orlando's love for Rosalind - no moment, no nuance went unnoticed by an audience who hung on every look, glance, vocal inflexion and felt no embarrassment about reacting loudly and enthusiastically to everything they saw. I felt privileged to be there, 'at the end of the world' as the mayor called it when he thanked us afterwards, watching actors from five European countries performing words written four hundred years before on the other side of the world by the one writer whose plays, whose image, whose name, is known to every human on the planet.

The actors, heroes now, posed for photographs, offered and received thanks and piled into our cars for the return trip to Port Elizabeth. A few hours later in the auditorium of the University of Port Elizabeth, they gave the complete play with costume, props, make-up and lights in front of a comfortable, educated audience. It was a performance haunted and informed by the one we had given earlier in the day. Our work will forever by changed by our afternoon in Klipplaart.

Fitches Corner. 6 August

After performances at The Grahamstown Festival, Southern Africa's equivalent of Edinburgh, and a week of workshops and performances at the festival for school children which followed it, we have been working across the eastern Cape. In association with the Western District Council and the University of Port Elizabeth, we have been to remote regions of the Karoo Mountains, in townships and in small rural communities. This week we were in the little village of Fitches Corner about 20 miles outside Port Elizabeth. The Council sends in one of their 2 arts workers (who between them cover 66,000 square kilometres) to give a motivational talk to a community and then return a month or two later to see the results. When we arrived the village was showing the fruits of its own self- devised workshop programme. Traditional dancing, singing, gumboot dancing - all the village were involved in someway, most as performers, some of the elders with us as an audience.

The performance, seamless, energetic, full of charisma, talent, discipline, self-organisation and self-motivation, lasted about an hour. Then we were asked to run a workshop. For an entire African village. In the blazing sun. We were five actors from five different European countries(Norway, Germany, France, England, Italy) and me, an English director.

There was little English spoken in the village and instruction had to be translated in Xhosa (though by now we had all picked up the basics of Xhosa - hello, thank you and so on). So the additional challenge was to run a workshop that, as far as possible, was entirely without spoken instruction. Physical theatre in a very real sense. We opened, as we always open a workshop, with the children's game Grandmothers Footsteps. Children's games form the cornerstone of much of our work and this is one which we have used in hundreds of ways and which is known throughout the world. Everywhere we have travelled - from Canada to Siberia - the games is played. Jean Pagni was the Grandmother and behind him an entire African village advanced. Names were learnt amidst the laughter. Then someone from the village took Jean's place and we played the game in groups, each actor with about fifteen villagers. Through sign and expression and touch and mimesis, strategies were worked out. In their different ways each group moved as one and we played until all collapsed in giggles and laughter.

Then Paola Cavallin took over. Born and trained in Venice she is a great and passionate exponent of Commedia dell'arte. The village and the actors formed one giant circle and she took everyone through three of the basic Commedia characters including her own beloved Pantelone. We all adopted, detail by detail, the physical characteristics of each character and then advanced towards the centre of the circle and out again, and then paraded around the village. The attention , the exquisite detailing of the physical work was astonishing. There in the blazing sun of an African winter, on dry grass in the little village of Fitches' Corner were sixty African Pantelones.

It was a small moment of the many that we have had in Africa, offering a taste of one kind of European performance to people who had taught us so much about their own.


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